In Raleigh on Monday, YA author Natalie C. Anderson launches her debut novel, City of Saints & Thieves, a thriller about a young African refugee named Tina. Universal has already acquired the film rights to the highly touted book, which takes place on the east coast of Africa, where Tina, on the hunt for her mother's killer, navigates Sangui City, a dystopian world of computer hackers, desperate criminals, and powerful, unaccountable elites.
Anderson's first encounter with refugees, however, took place closer to home.
"It was my first introduction to the idea that there even were refugees—in North Carolina, at least," Anderson says of her first job after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, when she worked in Raleigh with Lutheran Family Services, helping newly arrived refugees resettle in the area. The work was difficult, but witnessing the generosity these newcomers encountered in the Triangle made it rewarding, too.
"I was always impressed with how welcoming people were," she says. The experience inspired her to choose refugee work as a career. First, she headed to Oxford University, where she earned a master's degree in forced migration, then to Africa, where she took a job processing Congolese refugees in Uganda.
In the process of vetting her, Anderson's interviewers mostly wanted to know if she could endure the isolation of life in the field. "'Are you going to survive or are you going to have a meltdown?'" Anderson recalls them asking. "I'm sure I said something like, 'I'll be fine! It sounds great!'"
As it turned out, Anderson's biggest challenge wasn't the isolation. It was the stories she heard from refugees, so many of which went something like, "This happened, and then this happened, and then this person died, and this person was raped, and this person was kidnapped." The prospect of safety made it easier for refugees to speak openly, and yet, Anderson says, none had "a story anyone should have to tell again." Hearing them, day after day, took an emotional toll.
"Your brain needs some way to process things," Anderson says. "I started reading a lot of children's literature, because that was basically the only thing I could handle." She also tried writing—she started a middle-grade fantasy novel—but continued to find refugees' stories impossible to tell.
Anderson (who now lives in Geneva, Switzerland) returned to Africa later in her career, to Nairobi. She found that, with enough time and distance, she was ready to write about the refugee experience. She imagined a Robin-Hood-like young woman who rises from her childhood as a refugee to fight for justice, and Tina was born.
While Tina is a fictional construct, Anderson maintains that she reflects the real-life resilience she saw as a worker both in Africa and Raleigh. She mentions an extended family she helped settle in the Triangle, led by a matriarch grandmother whose officer husband died resisting military rule in Burma.
"This grandmother was just this force to be reckoned with," Anderson says. "You don't expect for this sweet little eighty-year-old lady to have these stories about trekking through the jungle."
Anderson also recalls a young man she worked with in Cairo, a Somali refugee whose mother negotiated his release with the terrorists who kidnapped him and then used the ransom money to fly him out of the country. The young man never heard from his mother again, and, much like Tina, he earned a reputation as a troublemaker as he navigated the byzantine refugee-resettlement process—which can take years, even when you're not from a country whose people are banned from entry—in order to create a better future for his brother and sister, who had accompanied him into exile.
Now that refugees are prominent in the news, Anderson is fielding a lot of questions about the hardships that refugees face and the ordeal of securing permission to come to the U.S. She's heartened by the interest.
"I've spent my career having to explain who refugees are and why it's important to support them," she says. "It's great that people are finally waking up to how great it is that we continue to be an open country."
Meet Anderson at Quail Ridge Books on March 13, when she appears on a panel sponsored by Penguin Teen that also features fellow YA authors Alwyn Hamilton, Lesley Livingston, and North Carolina's own Renée Ahdieh.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Taking Refuge in Fiction"